Sunday, September 23, 2007

Well, they say that Santa Fe is less than ninety miles away...

The term “media circus” didn’t emerge until the mid-70’s, but by 1951, Billy Wilder had already literalized the concept onscreen in his caustic satire Ace in the Hole, recently rescued from oblivion by a much-celebrated Criterion dvd release. When a miner is trapped in a cave-in while scavenging for “Indian artifacts” in New Mexico, opportunistic reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) spins the predicament into an epic human interest story that attracts hordes of gawkers, reporters, entertainers, and yes, even a full-fledged carnival (not-so-subtly titled “the Great S&M Amusement Corp.” in a sneaky move past the censors) to the site. While the disgraced, ex-big time reporter seeks to prolong the rescue mission until he can leverage his way back to his old job with a New York paper, the miner’s discontented wife (Jan Sterling) plans to skip town once the story blows over; lining her coffers in the meantime by charging admission to the site.

Ace has a reputation as Wilder’s most cynical study of human nature, and indeed Douglas’ Tatum is one of the meanest bastards ever to appear outside of a gangster picture in a Hayes Code-era Hollywood film. Stridently unethical and verbally, as well as physically, abusive, Tatum seemingly embodies every negative trope of the 50’s-era news business that Wilder and co-writers Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels could throw in; and the film’s contempt for the broadly drawn “Mr. and Mrs. America” types who lap up every tragic detail of the story (and ostensibly resemble a large segment of Hollywood’s usual target audience) is almost equally pronounced. Not surprisingly, the film was such a box office bomb that Paramount never even released it on VHS, and in fact recouped some of its losses from Wilder’s salary on his next hit, Stalag 17.

Unfortunately, Wilder’s cynicism isn’t as perfectly realized here as in masterpieces like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard; occasionally coming off not only as one-note but insultingly obvious. Tatum’s canny deflection of suspicion from the obviously unwieldy drilling plan also seems like a stretch, until you recall the mainstream media recently took their own sweet-ass time before raising hard questions about the deadly Utah mine disaster. Nevertheless, the film is a must-see not just for its uncompromising tone but because its audacity is complemented to outstanding effect by Wilder’s typically pimped out dialogue and some of the sharpest cinematography of his career.

Ace in the Hole would also make a great double-bill with the even-more prescient A Face in the Crowd (1957). While most Americans today can probably at least acknowledge the distasteful overkill of most media circuses, even as they devote their unhealthy interest to them, plenty are still wholly, gullibly snookered by the sort of sinister, phony folksy charm Andy Griffith lays on in Elia Kazan’s cautionary tale, as evidenced by George W. Bush and that doofy red pickup truck that future washout presidential candidate Fred Thompson uses exclusively for campaign appearances.

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